How Long to Spend
To the casual visitor, Wrangell can seem as puzzling as the ancient petroglyphs emerging from the beach on the north side of its downtown.
Controlled historically by the Tlingits, the British and the Russians, it's a place imprinted with layers of history that has resisted the dominance of any one of its many incarnations.
The Stikine River, about seven miles north of downtown, holds much of the area's 8,000-year story. Four hundred miles long and up to 16 miles wide, its name means "Great River" in the language of the Tlingit Indians who used the waterway to build a powerful trading empire here with the interior Natives.
The river also was the pathway for the three gold rushes that brought as many as 10,000 prospectors to town at one time, and transformed the town into a regional trade and supply hub. (Wyatt Earp passed through here, serving temporarily as the town's deputy marshal. John Muir passed through town at about the same time.)
The river remains a major salmon producer in Southeast Alaska, sustaining a long history of commercial canneries and providing world-class sport-fishing opportunities.
Sometimes called the "Yosemite of the North," by hikers and boaters, the Stikine climbs from a broad river plain in the Southeast rainforest through steep canyons into the tundra and brush of interior British Columbia. Its delta is a magnet for migrating birds, including as many as 10,000 snow geese who stop here each April on their way north.
The river also is a mecca for jet-boaters, canoeists, and kayakers with attractions like a natural hot springs and a garnet-strewn beach along the way.
Although commercial logging and milling dominated much of the down's history in the 20th century, earning it a reputation as a tough, blue-collar place, the closure of the last sawmill forced the down to regroup, with recent civic efforts aimed at showcasing the town's cultural and recreational attractions.
After Petersburg, Wrangell is the largest Southeast town that doesn't see dockings by large cruise ships. That means summer visitors can enjoy a more intimate experience of this place, poking along as the town's own pace.
Start your visit at the Wrangell Visitor Center inside the Nolan Center downtown. For information on Forest Service cabins and other offerings, contact the Wrangell Ranger District Office, 907-874-2323.
Rub A Petroglyph: Spirals, fish and other designs were carved into beach boulders thousands of years ago. Why? No one is quite sure. But with a sheet of paper and a crayon you can make a rubbing of one of these ancient symbols, found here in a rare concentration.
Buy A Garnet: A deposit of these dark red gemstones on the nearby Stikine River, once the site of a mine, was left for Wrangell's children, who are allowed to harvest them for free. Youths sell them to cruise ship passengers and other visitors to town. There's no other souvenir just like it.
See the Stikine: The Panhandle's longest river is a scenic wonderland featuring both wide deltas and narrow, rocky canyons. It's also a nursery for abundant fish and wildlife species, including migrating flocks of birds celebrated during their northward passage with a town festival each spring. Hire a jetboat and see what it's about. A six-hour river tour takes visitors to Shakes Glacier and Shakes Lake, where 3,000-foot cliffs inspired John Muir to describe the river as a "Yosemite 100 miles long." Jetboat tours that include a dip in a natural hot springs cost about $200 per person for a 5-6 hour trip.
Air: From Juneau or Ketchikan, reaching Wrangell is about an hour-long flight on the "milk run," an Alaska Airlines jet schedule that serves outlying communities in Southeast. There's on flight north and one south each day.
Alaska Marine Highway State Ferry: The ferry schedule can be irregular, due to breakdowns and other factors, so always double-check sailings. Via the ferry, Wrangell lies about three hours south of Petersburg and six hours north of Ketchikan.
Sunrise Aviation offers charters and flightseeing, including floatplanes, as well as drop-offs at lakes and cabins.